“Catching” a Case of Tzara’at

All the days that the affliction is upon him he will be impure.  He is impure; alone he should dwell; outside of the camp should be his place of dwelling.  (Sefer Vayikra 13:46)

Tzara’at, quarantine, and sin

Much of Tazria-Metzora is devoted to discussion of tzara’atTzara’at can take the form of a skin affliction.  Tzara’at can also occur as a discoloration of one’s clothing or of the walls of one’s home.  In all instances, it is associated with tumah – ritual impurity.

The Torah begins its presentation with a discussion of tzara’at of the skin.  The discussion deals with the identification of tzara’at and with its consequences.  One of the consequences of being designated as a metzora – someone suffering from tzara’at – is isolation.  The person is not only tamai – an object of ritual impurity; one is also placed in isolation, outside of the city.

The Torah’s message regarding the cause of tzara’at is very confusing.  In Tazria-Metzora there is no clear indication of its cause.  However, various aspects of the Torah’s treatment of tzara’at suggest that it is a naturally occurring and transmitted disease.  This conclusion is strongly indicated by the isolation or quarantine of the metzora.  However, in Sefer Devarim, the Torah describes Miryam being afflicted with tzara’at as the consequence of her speaking critically of her brother Moshe.  This incident suggests that the affliction is not naturally occurring but is rather a form of Divine punishment.


The one who has tzara’at – upon whom is the affliction – his clothing should be rend and his head unkempt.  Upon his lips he should wrap (a covering).  “Impure! Impure!” he should declare.  (Sefer Vayikra 13:45)

Tzara’at is a consequence of sin

The comments of the commentaries on the genesis of tzara’at adds to the confusion.  Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra notes that the quarantined metzora is required to adopt practices that are typically associated with mourning.  For example, he must rend his garments and may not cut his hair.  One of his explanations for this requirement is that the metzora must mourn his behaviors that have brought upon him this disease.[1]  Also, in his discussion of Miryam’s tzara’at, Ibn Ezra relates her affliction specifically to libelous speech.[2]  These comments are consistent with the view that tzara’at is a Divine punishment and not naturally contracted.

Tzara’at is contagious

Ibn Ezra also explains that tzara’at is naturally transmitted.  He explains that this is an underlying consideration in the Torah’s emphasis upon identifying one who exhibits symptoms of tzara’at.  The contagious nature of the disease also underlies the requirement of isolating the metzora.[3] Even in discussing Miryam, Ibn Ezra comments that she was placed in quarantine in order to protect others from becoming infected.[4]

In short, tzara’at is described by Ibn Ezra and others[5] as being a disease that is transmitted by natural causes and is also described as a form of Divine punishment for libel, tale-bearing and other sins.  This presents a problem.  The two characterizations seem to be contradictory.  If this disease is naturally transmitted and therefore, requires quarantine, then a metzora may have become afflicted through a process of natural transmission.  It seems that the presence of the disease does not indicate sin or wrongdoing.  Yet, the metzora is required to engage in a process of mourning.  This mourning presupposes that the person has sinned and should reassess his wicked behaviors. Mourning would not seem relevant if the disease is naturally contracted.[6]  Ibn Ezra’s treatment of Miryam’s tzara’at epitomizes the confusing position of these commentators.  The Torah unequivocally describes her tzara’at as a Divine punishment.  Ibn Ezra recognizes that this is the Torah’s intended message.  Yet, he insists that her tzara’at was contagious and required her isolation. If her affliction was a Divine punishment, then one would not expect it to be contagious.

Diseases and their transmission

Based upon the above, we must conclude that tzara’at is a naturally occurring disease whose transmission to a specific person is controlled by Hashem and used as a means of Divine punishment.  In order to understand this phenomenon, let’s consider a common ailment – the flu.  During flu season some people contract the illness and others do not.  Many factors determine whether a specific individual will become afflicted.  First, one must be exposed to the virus.  Whether one is exposed is determined by factors that are often beyond one’s control.  A person attends a gathering.  Unknown to the person, one of the participants is carrying the virus.  The attendees are exposed.  Among those exposed, some will become ill and some will not.  The factors that determine whether a n exposed person will become ill are varied and many.  The specific means of exposure, the length of exposure, the immunity of the exposed person, and one’s overall health are a few of the factors that may impact whether the exposure will lead to illness.  In other words, whether one will be exposed to the flu virus and whether one will fall ill as a consequence of exposure are dependent upon sets of circumstances of which one may not be aware and over which one may have little or no control.

The role of Divine will in tzara’at transmission

These commentators are suggesting that tzara’at is subject to a similar dynamic.  It is a naturally transmitted disease.  However, whether one will be exposed to the disease is often determined by factors of which one is unaware and does not control.  Not every metzora is quickly identified and quarantined.  One may be unknowingly exposed to a carrier.  Even if exposed, one may or may not contract the disease.  Like exposure to the cold virus, exposure to tzara’at does not inevitably lead to illness.  However, there is one very important characteristic of tzara’at that our commentators are stressing.  How the many factors will align – whether they will align in a manner that results in exposure and contraction of tzara’at – is controlled by Hashem.  He manages the factors so that those who have sinned contract the disease and the innocent do not.  In other words, some people will come into contact with a metzora and despite their exposure not contract the disease. Other will have a fleeting encounter with a carrier and become seriously afflicted.  Divine will determines how the many factors align and whether a person becomes a metzora.

The hand of Hashem in natural phenomena

Two interesting conclusions emerge from this view on tzara’at.  The first is that the hand of G-d is sometimes present behind natural phenomena.  We easily recognize Divine intervention when it is expressed through an uncommon or extraordinary manifestation.  In the absence of this clear evidence of Hashem’s intervention, we may assume that outcomes are the result of the natural unfolding of events.  Tzara’at teaches that Hashem does not give expression to His will only through overt actions.  Sometimes, His will is cloaked in events that appear very natural.  Tzara’at exemplifies this principle.  It is a contagious disease.  Yet, the Torah is telling us that we must recognize that one contracts the disease as a punishment.

The history of our people illustrates this principle. Certainly, Hashem’s will is evident in the splitting of the Reed Sea but it should also be recognized and acknowledged in the survival of our people through endless exiles and persecutions.  In most instances, we cannot identify an overt manifestation of Divine will; but when the lesson of tzara’at is applied to our history it teaches us that sometimes the hand of  G-d is guiding events that seem to be mere vagaries of history.

Accepting responsibility for oneself

Second, the laws regarding tzara’at teach us that we are not permitted to rely upon our innocence to protect us from harm.  Even though the factors that determine whether a person will contract tzara’at are managed by Divine will, the metzora is quarantined.  This is a counter-intuitive law.  Why should we be required to protect ourselves from the natural transmission of a disease which is ultimately managed by Divine will?  Yet, the Torah teaches that we are not permitted to expose ourselves to this disease and rely upon our innocence from sin to protect us.  This is even more certainly the case when we are confronted with more common and mundane dangers.  As individuals, as a community, and as a nation, we are each responsible for our well-being and safety.  Certainly, we pray for Hashem’s protection and blessings.  However, we bear the primary responsibility for acting with sound judgment and wisdom.  We must care for ourselves, plan our futures, conduct ourselves responsibly.  Our innocence or even righteousness does not entitle us to be remiss in our responsibility to provide for ourselves.

A difficult balance

We are required to strike a difficult balance.  We do not assume that our efforts alone secure our destinies.  We recognize that the efficacy of these efforts is in the hands of Hashem.  We must recognize also that although Hashem is the ultimate arbitrator or our destinies, we are responsible to carefully and deliberately provide for our own well-being.  We must have the mettle to pursue our well-being and the humility to recognize the limits of our sway.


[1] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 13:45.

[2] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 24:9.

[3] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Vayikra 13:2 and 13:45.

[4] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 12:14.

[5] The same two treatments are apparent in Da’at Zekeinim.  See comments on Vayikra 12:8 compared to 13:46, 14:2, and 14:5.

[6] It should be noted that one commentator who completely avoids this paradoxical problem is Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.  In his commentary on Sefer Vayikra he vigorously rejects the position that tzara’at is a contagious disease.  His argument includes a number of proofs from the laws of tzara’at.